Oh! What a turn off
Getting there is half the fun? Rubbish! Getting there is 90 per cent of the ordeal and packing is the other 10 per cent. Beam me there, Scotty, especially between Sydney and Melbourne. Messrs Hume and Hovell probably felt the same way when they pioneered the route in 1824.
As a sophisticated Melbourne boy who's lived in sparkling, superficial Sydney for many years, the upgrading of Highway 31 suits me fine. No longer does a pilgrimage to visit family, drink Lygon Street coffee and soak up some culture (footy or cricket at the MCG) take 15 hours in a hot rust bucket with smoking exhaust, making regular stops to refill the leaking radiator.
Our family cars have improved incrementally over the years. The Hume has improved a lot. There are no more traffic jams in Mittagong or speed traps in the aptly named Bookham. Nervous ducking out onto the wrong side of the road to overtake crawling caravans is a distant memory. Now, there are 800 kilometres of divided highway with only one set of traffic lights between Campbelltown, Sydney, and Campbellfield, Melbourne. It's smoother, it's faster, it's much safer and it's more boring than ever.
Roadside signs forlornly try to tempt travellers from the straight and narrow with little brown castle symbols. "Visit historic Berrima" (or Goulburn, Wangaratta, Euroa ...) they plead. I'm immune to their siren songs. I suspect there are no castles there.
But, this year, we decided to do something different. On the return Melbourne-Sydney leg, instead of taking minimal driver-reviver roadside breaks at service stations, the Chowne VC rest area or the Dog on the Tuckerbox, my wife and I slowed down. We took the turnoffs to those little brown castles, and for three days were most pleasantly diverted.
This is Kelly country. The final shootout at the Glenrowan Hotel in 1880 is legendary. Any town would cash in on such notoriety.
As we rolled into the main street we slowed to let a horse and cart rattle past, and a gentleman wearing a police bobby helmet wobbled by on a pushbike, advertising the wares of a souvenir shop. Outside the newsagent, Big Ned, in full concrete armour, brandished his shotgun.
John Williamson, Slim Dusty and their imitators supplied the soundtrack to the town, drawling about homes among gumtrees and pubs with no beer from every cafe. We thought we owed it to Glenrowan's gallant efforts to visit at least one tourist attraction and chose the Ned Kelly Memorial Museum and homestead (as seen on a popular TV lifestyle show), entry A$6 (NZ$7.10).
We found a clear retelling of the tragic Kelly story through photos and reproductions of the famous armour and death mask. Out the back was a faithful re-creation of the Kellys' shack, walls papered with newsprint, rooms furnished with objects reputed to have belonged to the family. The talking cockatoo was a bonus. It felt authentic, even if the serious money was being made in the gift shop through sales of Kelly T-shirts and coffee mugs.
At the Billy Tea Rooms we entered into the spirit of things, ordering damper and a pie floater. Unsurprisingly, no chef has yet been awarded a Michelin star for serving traditional Aussie tucker. But it tasted far better than it looked, and the service was friendly, in a "There you go, love" kind of way.
We may have missed the best show in town. Ned Kelly's Last Stand, in the animated theatre, boasts: "This attraction can and does frighten people of all ages." It was hot in Glenrowan. There was a half-hour wait before the next terrifying session and we suspected, perhaps unfairly, that the $27 entry fee was daylight robbery. We drove on.
There are few Australian country towns worth visiting for their elegant streetscapes. A combination of luck and foresight has made Beechworth an exception.
Beechworth struck it rich when gold was discovered near here in 1852. Although the rush was short-lived, when the miners were sluiced out Beechworth was left with some architectural gems in the pan.
Present-day residents have worked hard to keep up appearances. Pubs drape wrought-iron lace around wide verandahs, their facades topped with ornate gables. Every shopfront is painted in heritage cream with green or salmon trimmings. The hoardings may say "takeaway pizza" or "IGA supermarket", but ye olde lettering lends undeniable charm.
Beechworth's location must help to pull in the tourists, too. It's in the centre of a wine-growing area and on the way to the Victorian snowfields.
Remnants of the wild mining town days survive in the courthouse and the still-functioning jail. I trust conditions have improved since Ned Kelly was remanded there, where his mother also did three years' hard labour for aiding and abetting.
Robert O'Hara Burke, of Burke and Wills fame, was a Beechworth police inspector from 1854 to '58 and lends his name to the small local museum.
We continued our detour with a spin through Beechworth's neighbour Yackandandah. It's a sleepy village with a pleasantly leafy main street that springs to life each March with the annual folk festival. It appeared that some folkies had lingered after the fun, running shops with names such as Rainbow Crystal and selling Indian scarves and beautiful tables handcrafted from local timber.
In the bad old days, this was one of the worst stretches of the Hume. Just as you thought you'd made good time through northern Victoria, you'd be forced to creep bumper to bumper past the used-car yards and garden suppliers of Albury North.
Highway 31 zips past it all now, but we were in no hurry. We pulled in and stopped for the night. It's still a thriving rural centre, with museums, galleries and decent shops, not to mention the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, those ordinary kids doing extraordinary things, who are Albury's greatest gifts to Australian culture. Their smart new school building is worth driving past.
For us, Albury offered a wide choice of accommodation, good coffee, a more than decent dinner (excellent work, Indian Tandoori in Dean Street!) and an airconditioned cinema - a relief after a long, hot drive.
Next morning I rose early to nip across the road to photograph the Albury railway station. It boasts the longest platform in the southern hemisphere and still retains freshly painted elegance. Sadly, too few passenger trains stop in Albury now.
It's famed in old songs, of course - "There's a track winding back to an old fashioned shack along the road to Gundagai ..."
In the 19th century, Gundagai was better known as the site of Australia's worst natural disaster, a flash flood on the Murrumbidgee River that claimed at least 87 lives.
We were reminded of the tragedy as we approached from the south, to find the decaying timbers of the disused Prince Alfred Bridge and aqueduct stretching across the flood plain. They were wisely built after the event to secure a route for road and rail traffic between Melbourne and Sydney.
The weathering wooden bridges made for excellent photo ops and signs told us the history. The story was new to me. Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria's second son, was the first member of the royal family to visit Australia. Royal tours got off to a rocky start when the prince was shot and wounded at a picnic at Clontarf by a disturbed gunman, who was hanged for the crime in 1868. The prince never visited Gundagai, but the bridge and Sydney's RPA Hospital were named after him.
We stopped for coffee in the old Gundagai Theatre. It's a handsome art deco building, now surplus to requirements as an entertainment venue, which houses a treasure trove of country antiques. We never bother with antique shops in Sydney. We assume that anything we like will be unaffordable. This art market in Gundagai was packed with trash and treasures. I would have loved that HMV turntable, complete with listening dog and brass trumpet, but where would we put it?
An impressive glass vase caught my wife's eye. Three thousand dollars seemed out of our price range until we fished out the glasses and read the tag again - $30.00. We wrapped our bargain carefully before stuffing it in the car boot and heading for Sydney.
We're sure to be driving this way again. There are other towns to check out, and it will be nice to go looking around for little brown castles sometimes, at least until beaming becomes affordable.
Wangaratta Wangaratta Art Gallery, in a former Presbyterian church, features handcrafts from north-eastern Victoria. And the town has a memorial to Changi war hero Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop.
Goulburn The Big Merino, a concrete model of prize sheep "Rambo", houses a history of the Australian wool industry. Of course you can buy ugg boots there.
Berrima One of NSW's prettiest towns, Berrima has plenty of historic buildings as well as antique and craft shops.
1 Adelaide via Coast Road
Distance: 2100 kilometres.
Route: Princes Highway via Eden, through Gippsland Lakes, ferry from Sorrento to Queenscliff, Great Ocean Road to Mount Gambier, along Limestone Coast and through Coorong, then inland and into Adelaide Hills.
Highlights: Eden's whaling museum, Gippsland Lakes boat tour, Twelve Apostles rock formations, historic Port Fairy, Mount Gambier's coloured lakes, Murray River mouth at Goolwa, Adelaide Hills wineries.
Don't miss: Dinner at Victoria's oldest inn, the Merrijig, Port Fairy; merrijiginn.com.
2 Dubbo via Blue Mountains and Orange
Distance: 420 kilometres.
Route: M4 to Blue Mountains, through Katoomba to Lithgow, on to Bathurst and Orange.
Highlights: Wentworth Falls, Leura Village, Katoomba's Echo Point lookout, drive Bathurst's Mount Panorama motor-racing circuit, Orange wineries.
Don't Miss: Overnighting at the new Billabong Campsite, Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo; taronga.org.au/billabongcamp.
3 Gold Coast via Legendary Pacific Coast
Distance: 950 kilometres.
Route: Pacific Highway, detouring via Lakes Way at Bulahdelah, through Grafton and via coast road to Byron Bay, M1 on to Gold Coast.
Highlights: Seal Rocks beaches, Great Lakes scenic drive, Coffs' Big Banana, Cape Byron lighthouse, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, theme parks.
Don't miss: Lunch at Ulmarra Hotel beside Clarence River, near Grafton; ulmarrahotel.com.au.
4 Snowy Mountains via Grand Pacific Drive/Kosciuszko Alpine Way
Distance: 530 kilometres.
Route: Grand Pacific Drive south of Sydney, inland through southern highlands to Canberra, Alpine Way to Thredbo.
Highlights: The coast-hugging Grand Pacific Drive, Illawarra Fly Tree Top Walk in southern highlands, Canberra museums, scenic Alpine Way, ski fields.
Don't miss: Sea Cliff Bridge, dramatic offshore cantilever on Grand Pacific Drive; seacliffbridge.com.
5 Coffs Coast inland via Hunter Valley, New England Highway and Waterfall Way
Distance: 690 kilometres.
Route: Pacific Highway to Calga, inland to Hunter Valley, New England Highway from Singleton, through Tamworth and Armidale, then Waterfall Way to the coast.
Highlights: Hunter Valley wineries, Tamworth's Big Golden Guitar, Armidale's New England Regional Art Museum, national parks/cascades along Waterfall Way, bohemian Bellingen.
Don't miss: Dorrigo National Park's World Heritage rainforest and Skywalk, Waterfall Way, Dorrigo; nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.
Sydney Morning Herald